Films, no matter what the genre, need to have high stakes in order to keep audiences invested. Sometimes, as a means of illustrating the severity of the situation, a character will die to infuse a sense of danger and dread in viewers. It can be an extremely effective tool in getting us to care more about what happens on-screen, especially if the characters are well-developed.
And as sad as they may be, some character deaths are necessary evils in that they play a large role in a movie’s plot. For example, many Terminator fans were crying with John Connor when the T-800 gave his memorable thumbs up as he descended into the molten steel, but his elimination was the final step in ensuring Judgment Day never came to be.
Then there are those where we reflect on what we just watched and say, “Why did so and so have to die?” realizing that even if they survived, the story would have largely stayed the same (save for a few aspects here and there). Here are Screen Rant’s 10 movie deaths we most regret, where we honor the fallen characters that we really wish would have made it out of their films alive.
Spoiler alert, obviously.
11 Billy Costigan – The Departed
After graduating from the police academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is ready to fulfill his dream of being a cop, but his superiors have another idea. Looking to take down crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), they place Costigan undercover on Costello’s team, throwing the young officer into a terrifying situation he’s not completely ready to handle. All through the film’s running time, Costigan is consumed by paranoia and fear; he reaches the point that he’s begging for Valium to calm his nerves. Since his heart was always in the right place, it’s hard not to root for Bill as he waits for the Boston police to make their move.
And finally that moment happens. Costello is taken out, and during his debriefing Costigan discovers that Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) was Frank’s rat in the police department. Instead of taking his money and running, Costigan decides he’s going to bring Sullivan to justice and arrests him. Just when he thinks he’s won, Costigan is greeted by a bullet to the head in an elevator, never tasting that life of freedom he craved. After watching him endure so much, it’s a gut-punching moment that makes our hearts sink.
10 Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained
In a complete reversal of the character he played in his first Oscar-winning collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, Christoph Waltz gave audiences the kind-hearted, well-meaning Dr. King Schultz, who took sympathy in the slaves’ plight and wished to see them set free. A bounty hunter, he takes Django (Jamie Foxx) under his wing and shows him the ropes, giving Django the guardian and friend he never had. Schultz even fulfills his promise to Django and helps him save his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the vile Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Candie insists that Schultz shake his hand to make the deal official, but instead Schultz shoots the slave owner to death, regretfully telling Django that he “couldn’t resist” before he too is blown away by one of Calvin’s associates. Yes, Schultz’s demise did set up the frenzied bloodbath that consumed the film’s third act, but seeing as how Django and Schultz had completed their mission, it would have been arguably a more heart-warming ending had Schultz kept his gun down and just shook a hand. We’re happy that Django was reunited with his true love, but he lost a great and noble friend in the process.
9 Captain John Miller – Saving Private Ryan
One of the prevailing questions that’s asked numerous times throughout Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning war drama is if the mission to save one man is worth the potential loss of soldiers’ lives when Germany had still not been defeated. And the filmmaker didn’t pull any punches in searching for answers, as Miller sees a number of his men make the ultimate sacrifice as they look for John Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) so he can return home to his mother. Unfortunately for the audience, Miller was among the fallen.
It’s the nature of Miller’s death that made everything so heartbreaking. Doing the “right thing” and letting German “Steamboat Willie” go free after a firefight, the former prisoner is the one who puts the fatal bullet in Miller during the film’s final battle. Knowing that the conflict at Ramelle was Miller’s ticket back home (a place he desperately wanted to go), one can’t help but wish that his fortunes were reversed and he made it out of Europe alive. We’re not necessarily saying Steamboat Willie should have been executed when he was first found (since that sequence provided nice character moments), but it would have been nice to see Miller survive.
8 Mr. Gustave – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s Best Picture nominee is largely a rollicking crime caper, with the misadventures of Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his trusted lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) providing moments of entertainment as they attempt to uncover the mystery surrounding Madame D’s (Tilda Swinton) murder. But it’s also a story of how the world changes in the midst of a war, with Gustave fighting for the last remnants of class and sophistication, characteristics of what is seemingly a bygone era. His determination for standing up for his values and belief systems is what comes back to prematurely end his life, in actions well after he had solved his case with Zero and moved on.
Toward the end of the film, Gustave meets his demise off camera defending Zero from soldiers who wish to see his immigrant papers (threatening to arrest him). Even though we never see Gustave get shot, it’s still a sad scene, and it gives the film a melancholy ending to what was a rousing adventure to that point. In a way, Gustave’s death serves one of the movie’s themes, and illustrates that his cause was always a lost one, but seeing as that he was just sticking up for his friend in an isolated incident, we don’t see why the soldiers had to be so cruel. If only Henckels (Edward Norton) had been there.
7 Donnie – The Big Lebowski
In a film populated by colorful characters like Walter (John Goodman), The Jesus (John Tuturro) and The Dude (Jeff Bridges), it’s easy to forget about poor Donnie (Steve Buscemi), the third member of The Dude’s bowling team. Never really getting a chance to have his voice be heard and always relegated to the background, Donnie is mainly inconsequential to the plot, with his primary purpose being a punching bag for Walter’s insults. Even though viewers didn’t get to know him that much, he still seemed like a harmless, friendly guy who just enjoyed life.
Confronted by German nihilists still under the impression that there is money to be had at the end of the film, Dude, Walter, and Donnie have to fight for their lives after a night of bowling, and though they defeat their attackers, Donnie can’t handle the excitement. He succumbs to a heart attack, putting a dark exclamation point on an otherwise comedic misadventure that was full of laughs. Donnie didn’t do much, but the main gang still seemed incomplete without him and his absence was very noticeable. The Stranger (Sam Elliott) said he didn’t like to see Donnie go, and neither did we.
6 Harry – Speed
Just from their banter in Speed’s opening sequence, you can tell that Jack (Keanu Reeves) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) are inseparable best buds who will always have each other’s back. It’s important that their dynamic was so well-established early on, as it made one of the film’s more stunning moments a heartbreaking one as well. After the LAPD discovers the identity of the mad bomber, Harry leads a squad to Howard Payne’s (Dennis Hopper) house, but the home has been rigged to explode and the officers are killed instantly.
Audiences already had enough reasons to hate Payne that this move was just icing on the cake. Viewers certainly shared Jack’s sentiments in the moments immediately after Harry is killed, as the normally calm policeman is consumed by rage. It gives us one of Keanu’s greatest lines in an action movie, but we can’t help but wonder how the film would have played out (probably not too differently) if Harry lived. As great as it was to see Jack and Annie (Sandra Bullock) get together, one final scene of Jack and Harry celebrating finally taking down Payne would be been all the more sweet.
5 Jack Dawson – Titanic
Sailing on the maiden voyage of the Titanic should be an exciting proposition, but for Rose (Kate Winslet), it’s anything but. Destined to live her life among the stuffy upper class, she would rather commit suicide than marry Cal (Billy Zane) and go through the rest of her days disillusioned. However, fate intervenes and she meets Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a ball of light and energy who opens up a whole new perspective of the world for Rose to see. Even though the two are on the ship for just a short time, they’re perfect for each other and fall in love. They’re even set to run off together once the boat docks.
Sadly, they never get that chance. When the ship has its fateful collision with the iceberg, many of the passengers are left fending for their lives in the harsh conditions of the Atlantic Ocean. That includes Jack, who even gives up his spot on a piece of wood so Rose can stay out of the cold water, and succumbs to hypothermia before rescue boats arrive to save them (though it's debatable if there was room for both Rose and Jack). Admittedly, the true tragedy behind Titanic would make a “lovers' walk together in the sunset” ending a bit jarring (not counting the film’s final scene), but Jack and Rose were a sweet couple who deserved each other and it was heartbreaking that their time together was so short.
4 Fred Weasley – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Beginning with The Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling cranked up the stakes considerably by killing off characters in the Harry Potter stories. Some were heartbreaking (Sirius Black) and others were downright shocking (Dumbledore). Then there’s the case of lovable trickster twin brother Fred Weasley (James Phelps), whose passing in the Battle of Hogwarts proved so traumatic, Potter fans started a “Fred Weasley Death Support Group” on Facebook so people all around the globe could come together and mourn.
It’s easy to see why so many people were impacted by Fred’s death. Though the twins were never main characters, they were certainly among the most memorable side players in the franchise, working as the Abbott and Costello of the wizarding world with the jokes and gags they constantly played on their friends. Even when the impending doom surrounding Voldemort’s return was near, they never took themselves too seriously, illustrating the fun side of magic and how it can be truly awe-inspiring. Even though George was spared to carry the torch, it isn’t the same without Fred there to complement him. His sacrifice left a void impossible to fill.
3 Darth Maul – The Phantom Menace
The Star Wars prequels are rather maligned, but one aspect of them that's usually praised is Darth Maul (Ray Parks), the athletic Sith apprentice who quickly became one of the franchise’s most iconic creations with his stoic, intimidating persona and master skill with a lightsaber. His screen time and lines of dialogue were brief, but he was such a commanding presence that it was hard not to feel a pang of disappointment when Obi-Wan Kenobi sliced him in half and sent him toppling to his death. Yes, Maul was revived for the Clone Wars animated series, but George Lucas cost himself a great movie villain for the last two prequels.
Now, we have to point out that if Maul had lived (eliminating the need for Count Dooku to step in as Sidious’ apprentice), he may not have been the best person to unite entire systems in a political alliance against the Galactic Republic (meaning Palpatine may have had to be more hands-on), but it would have been worth it just to give Maul more time to develop. As Star Wars fans, it’s hard not to wonder what things might have been like if young Anakin’s rival was Maul instead of the elder Dooku, which would have pitted two Force users in their prime against each other and been a spectacle to behold. Maul had every right to be the prequel’s answer to Vader and his legacy is one of wasted potential instead of going down as an all-time great.
2 Hicks and Newt – Alien 3
All throughout Aliens, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) fights to protect the young Newt (Carrie Henn) from the xenomorphs with the courageous Hicks (Michael Biehn) never leaving her side. The only survivors (along with android Bishop) of the space marines’ voyage to LV-426, the trio seemed poised to operate as a makeshift family unit, finally free of nightmares and creatures with acid blood. But in the beginning of Alien 3, their craft crashes on Fury 161. Ripley is the only one who gets out alive, essentially rendering everything she did in the previous movie pointless, since her new companions met their bitter end anyway.
The case can be made that we’re cheating a little bit because the deaths of Hicks and Newt did have some impact on the plot of Alien 3. It would have been a different movie if those characters were around, but many of its elements would have stayed the same. At the same time, their losses were harder to swallow than usual, especially considering that the main alien is introduced via dog instead of an embryo that was inside Hicks or Newt. It undercut a beloved and critically acclaimed classic that had legions of supporters, and even James Cameron expressed displeasure with the decision. Heartbreaking deaths are a vital piece of cinema, but these were more cruel than emotionally gut-punching.
Not all movie deaths are created equal. While some will be of great service to the core narrative and characters, there are others that just illustrate how life is unfair and sometimes people kick the bucket for no “real” reason at all. No matter how satisfying a conclusion to a film is, the knowledge that some of our favorite characters weren’t there to see it all through gives it all a bittersweet feel.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to list your most heartbreaking film deaths in the comments below.